Sean Burkholder has been thinking about the industrial landscapes of the Great Lakes for more than 10 years. He is currently an assistant professor of landscape and urban design at SUNY/University of Buffalo, and his teaching and research include topics that are salient to the region, including the reuse of urban infrastructure, urban vacancy, and the management of dredge materials. Next month, Burkholder will be launching the North Coast Design Competition with project sites along the riverfront in Toledo, Ohio. We talked with Burkholder about the region’s particular character, how the competition will harness local expertise, and why Toledo needs a dredge research site.
Tell us a little about the industrial landscape of the Great Lakes. What makes it different from other working ports, and how does that inform the competition’s program?
The interesting thing about the Great Lakes is that it’s a tremendous resource of fresh water. It’s 200,000 square miles of a drainage basin, and though that’s not big compared to the Mississippi River basin, it’s still 30 million people right on fresh water. With that access to fresh water comes the fresh water ecologies and habitat that are tied to it, so it’s a completely different system than on the coasts.
The Great Lakes was the industrial core of the country. Material made it to the Great Lakes and was then shipped out through the canals or the Saint Lawrence seaway. With changing populations, migration, suburbanization, and de-urbanization, the region has suffered in the postindustrial period. So, it’s a region that’s trying to reinvent itself in a lot of ways. I’ve worked in a lot of the cities around the Great Lakes region, and that work has primarily dealt with vacancy and postindustrial urban sites.
The competition is designed to look topically at issues that are in some ways endemic to the entire basin. The idea is to look at the issues at a graspable scale so that a designer can work on a problem with special contextual conditions in a specific place, but also allow for wide-ranging application.